Which Indian ragas was Trane listening to? Decoding his handwritten notes with master musicians of the East and West


John Coltrane left behind a few handwritten pages of notation entitled ‘Scales of India’, hastily scrawled for a student. I collaborate with some modern masters from jazz and Indian classical music to work out which ragas they are – and how he might have drawn from them. Ideas, feedback, etc to george@ragajunglism.org


 

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“I collect [Ravi Shankar’s] records…and his music moves me. I’m certain that if I recorded with him I’d increase my possibilities tenfold, because I’m familiar with what he does…” (John Coltrane, 1961)

 

John Coltrane was, indisputably, one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians. India’s classical traditions were, in turn, among his greatest stylistic inspirations – perhaps more so than any others beside jazz and the church music of his childhood. Indeed, Trane’s obsessive blend of technique, mysticism, and deep philosophical enquiry is unthinkable without the vast imprints of India (just ask his son Ravi…).

 

But even half a century on, surprisingly little is understood about the precise points of Indo-jazz confluence. Coltrane devotees immerse into his raga-length exhortations, with titles such as Om, India, and Meditations, and read about his penchant for ‘exotic scales’. But we musicians need finer detail than this. What Indian music was he listening to, and how did it influence his sound? How did Trane really draw from the world of raga?

 

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Lewis Porter’s excellent biography (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) goes deep into archival sources to unpick his thoughts and innovations. Upon reaching page 210, my heart jumped at seeing a picture entitled ‘Scales of India, cont.’. The single-side image showed handwritten notation for six brief ascent-descent patterns, each untitled but accompanied by a few mysterious adjectives (“night, power, majesty…”).

 

According to Porter, the scales were copied from Trane’s own personal notes by Carl Grubbs, his long-term saxophone student and the cousin of Naima, his first wife. Grubbs, who is still active as a performer, suggests that Trane may have originally got them from a book – but if this is the case, it is unclear which one. (I’m getting in touch with them both to find out more).

 

Might this scrawled artifact be a rare, direct window into the heart of the Indo-Coltrane conflux? Musicians are what they imbibe, and to learn how he learned, we should try and listen to what he was listening to. So – what are these curious scales? And how might he have been using them?

 

I immediately recognised the second (‘morning, sad’) as the Hindustani Raag Bhairavi, perhaps the most famous morning raga in all of North Indian classical music. Trane’s sketch matches Bhairavi’s swara material (note set), roughly akin to the Western Phrygian mode, and retains a characteristic feature of Bhairavi’s phraseology – the Pa (5th degree) is omitted on the way up, but played on the way down. (Listen here).

 

After delving further into the vast world of public-domain Coltraneology, I found that ethnomusicologist Carl Clements had also identified the second scale as Bhairavi in his 2008 PhD (John Coltrane and the integration of Indian concepts into jazz improvisation – an excellent read covering the contexts and timelines). But as far as I can tell, none of the other scales have been identified yet.

 

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Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Photo: Jerry de Wilde

Whatever approach Trane did take, we will understand it better for working out which ragas he was actually drawing from. Perhaps we can uncover some precise crossover zones – say, borrowing a uniquely Indian scale into jazz, or introducing raga-like differentiation of his ascents and descents.

 

Jazz composer and scholar Bill Bauer notes that Coltrane based the head melody for 1961’s India on a Vedic chant from Religious Music of India, a 1952 Smithsonian Folkways compilation. So when we know what else to look for, we may be able to spot other Indian-derived phrases in his longform playing.

 

Or perhaps the interchange was more on the conceptual and philosophical levels, without so much in the way of direct melodic borrowing. Either way, we should try to find out – at the very least, gleaning some further Indo-Trane insights will add sonic depth to the mysticism of his track titles, and help us understand his musical beliefs a little better.

 

I didn’t have to look very far for one such convergence. On the very next page, Porter quotes from Coltrane’s correspondence with the late Village Voice critic Nat Hentoff, recounted in the latter’s linear notes for 1962’s Live at the Village Vanguard: “In India…particular sounds and scales are intended to produce specific emotional meanings…I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain…”.

 

On reading this, the mind of any Indian classical musician would turn instantly to the Malhar raga family, synonymous with the monsoon – many believe their melodies can summon the rains when played with enough force and precision. The legendary composer Miyan Tansen is fabled to have demonstrated this at Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century court, entrancing visiting kings, warlords, and diplomats with his musico-magical feats.

 

Similar tales turn up in more recent Hindustani history too. The Mallick vocal family still live on land gifted to their ancestors by the Maharajah of Darbhanga, for, it is said, ending a drought in the Nepalese border kingdom with a special performance of Megh Malhar. All this musical supernaturalism would doubtless have fascinated Coltrane.

 

So was he learning the Malhar ragas? His words to Hentoff hint at this, but the persuasive proof seems to be in the scales themselves – two of them begin their ascents with Sa-Re-ma-Pa (1-2-4-5), suggesting several Malhar variants.

 

Have a listen to Budhaditya Mukherjee’s rendition of Miyan ki Malhar, named for the great Tansen, in an extraordinary performance filmed by Darbar (I’m currently their resident writer/musicologist). See how well you think the raga’s fluid slides and glides match with the surrounding Indian rainstorm – no wonder Trane was into this sort of thing:

 

But many of the other scales are, for now, less clear (full analysis on the next page). Grubbs’ account seems to suggest that they came from a book, but even if we can ascertain which one, this may only end up telling us so much. Western works on Indian music available at the time could vary greatly in accuracy and quality (…they still do).

 

My guess is that this one wasn’t even focused on Indian music specifically. Porter notes that the “Scales of India” were written next to others, marked “Algerian”, “Chinese”, “Japanese”, and so on. Perhaps he got them from a general compendium of scales (why else would they have no raga titles?). It could even have been his beloved Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, published by composer and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky in 1947 (I’m awaiting my copy).

 

Besides, there are other possibilities for their origin. Coltrane is known to have corresponded with Ravi Shankar for several years, but sadly died before achieving his stated ambition of studying directly with the sitar master for a planned six-month stint. I imagine their letters got technical and theoretical sometimes, so maybe he got some of his knowledge this way.

 

But to me, Shankar, in keeping with the aural, unwritten approaches of his own traditions, would have been disinclined to teach from the page. And it’s hard to think that Coltrane wouldn’t have been jotting down Indian scales by ear from recordings and concerts, perhaps modifying or approximating them in the process. The descent of scale 4 (SNnDPmGRS) seems to have been reordered to match the shape of the Bebop Dominant (8-7-b7-6-5-4-3-2-1), an eight-note jazz staple he already knew inside-out.

 

Some scales have an extra bar with just three individual tones picked out and played again. To me this suggests that Trane was ‘thinking aloud’, considering which notes to strengthen in his explorations. This is a core feature of Indian raga – each one has several melodic ‘centres of gravity’, including Sa (the root note), vadi and samvadi (king and queen notes), nyas (resting tones), and chalan (characteristic phrases).

 

So despite their vague origin, I don’t think that decoding them is an insurmountable task. With a little help from my Hindustani classical friends, we can ‘join the dots’, matching Trane’s notations and adjectives with the ragas we know. And we can fine-tune our focus with some historical inquiry too – why not also trace which artists, records, and concerts Trane could conceivably have had access too at the time?

 

The ‘Scales of India’ present a fascinating musical puzzle, and the process of solving them could well bring fresh insights into a highly significant area of transglobal musical interchange. As we already know, Trane’s legacy is unthinkable without his vast interweaving of Indian ideas – and much of modern music is, in turn, unthinkable without his legacy (just one example: Golden Age hip-hop innovator Rakim grew up matching his rhymes to the rhythms of Coltrane solos).

 

So for those who are interested, the scales themselves are on the next page, including audio demos on my guitar and sitar, notation in Indian and Western terms, and some initial thoughts on what they might be. Thanks to my collaborators so far!

 

—Musical analysis: Coltrane’s ‘Scales of India’ – which ragas are they?

 

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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